by Jane Lebak (8/03)
Catching up to the Spectran raiders proved no problem for the Phoenix. Only an hour out of Sigma Minor's colony Ryza, G-Force managed to intercept the first of the ships which had raided the agrarian colony's storehouses.
"It's a delta-class," Princess called from her monitor. "Light weaponry, very light shielding--a flying cargo hold. Unloaded they could outpace us."
From her own station, Susan said, "The initial reports from Ryza indicate this ship stole about 1500 tons of flour, along with whatever else was in the warehouse, mostly freeze-dried fruits and vegetables. The weight will drag them a bit during the acceleration phase."
A dying planet, Spectra had recently concentrated on raiding outlying planets for consumables. Ordinarily the Space Patrol would handle these matters, but G-Force had already been in the area and decided to pitch in.
"We need to stop them now, before they go to time warp." Jason leaned over the targeting computer. "Mark, I've got a lock on them."
Mark thought a moment, then said, "Fire."
The missile launched almost as soon as he'd said the word. The first shot exploded right before the hull of the ship. "Not into the hull, damn it!" Mark turned. "Jason, we need to bring this food back to Ryza! Just cripple the thing!"
"Don't you think I know that? It was a shrapnel bomb, just enough to give them a warning of what we'd do if they don't surrender." Since they hadn't surrendered, Jason retargeted and fired a missile into the communications array at the ship bow, then took another shot into starboard engines.
Keyop was radioing, "Spectran ship, this is the Phoenix. Surrender your cargo. We repeat, surrender your cargo."
Jason said, "I've got a third missile on standby. Just give the word."
Mark held out a hand, not turning his eyes from the monitor. "Let's see their reaction."
The Spectrans reacted by jettisoning two escape craft from the freighter. Before Jason could target them, the first had jumped directly into time warp and the second positioned itself with the cargo freighter blocking any shot from the Phoenix. Presently it too had made the jump to time warp.
Susan scanned the ship and reported no one aboard.
Keyop high-fived Tiny. "That was easy!"
Mark took a deep breath. "We'll pursue the other raiders, but we need to bring the ship back to Ryza. Jason, get over there and pilot it."
Jason nodded and headed toward the back of the cockpit. Mark said, "Susan, you accompany him. You've never been on a Spectran ship before, and this seems like as good a time as any."
Wearing full space-gear over their birdstyles, Susan and Jason crammed themselves into a launch pod attached to one of the more specialized bird missiles, then radioed Mark that they were ready to go. Mark launched them.
Flying without windows, neither could tell the distance until they had reached the freighter; Susan felt a small thrill of fear that they might miss, but shortly they impacted, and Jason let them out. They were lashed together with a long cable, and Jason led them up the side of the freighter until reaching a portal they could open. Presently they were inside.
Jason looked around to get his bearings, then motioned that Susan should follow him without removing her helmet. They moved through the ship, the regular hiss of their oxygen tanks echoing off the close walls of the corridor, until Jason located a small room at the front. The interior revealed a half dozen seats with corresponding control panels and displays. Removing his pack, Jason unzipped it to reveal a device that looked like a cross between a sailing ship and a pack of cards. He pressed a button on the side, and the bright blue membrane (the "sail" part) began to inflate and deflate. After a minute, the light on the front blinked a steady green with each inflation of the stiff blue cloth.
Removing her helmet, Susan took a deep breath and immediately noticed the humidity and the slight muskiness of the air. "Welcome to Spectra's taxi service," Jason said. "Their ships always have this kind of smell."
"Is Spectra itself like this?"
"Their air's a bit thicker than home." Jason folded his arms.. "Well, here we are. Our breathing robot says life support is operational, but I always like to double-check that first. Second priority will be getting the engines ready to go."
Susan looked helplessly at the control panels. "I can't read enough Spectran to do much good."
"Most of their control mechanisms are laid out on a template, so you don't need to read much." Jason pressed a few buttons, bringing the command center to life. "There we go. The dials max out to the left, not to the right, so your first instincts will usually be wrong. But they always have a nice blue area demarked for their safety zones, and if you keep the needles in the blue, everything should function correctly."
This didn't enlighten her as much as Jason seemed to think it had. Susan browsed over a dozen dials, wondering what any of them meant.
"We knocked out their communications array--that much shouldn't be a problem, though." The internal security cameras seemed to have been wired into that array, so the screens hummed with static. Jason turned off the power to that control panel. "We don't need the array anyhow, between you and the bracelets. We also fired into the engines, and one of them was knocked out. It's going to take a little work to compensate, but it shouldn't be terribly difficult."
Susan let Jason work the controls, listening to the various whines and groans as the ship began accelerating. He'd had to carefully manipulate the one remaining engine in order to get the ship moving on a normal trajectory without spinning, but in less than half an hour they had a course plotted and a ship traveling in roughly that direction.
Susan contacted the Phoenix, which had long since set off to track the other ships from the raiding party. She told them they were heading back to Ryza, and Princess confirmed that by their radar, the ship seemed to be heading in the right direction.
Don't tell Jason I double-checked him, though.
Susan didn't tell Princess that Jason realized the team would have been monitoring their course and heading right from the start.
"It's going to be a long haul home." Jason took a seat and stretched out his legs. "The one remaining engine isn't really up to the job, and this ship is loaded to the gills."
Susan glanced over all the dials again. "This one's out of the blue zone, Jason."
Jason sounded out the Spectran characters and said, "That's part of the life support. Air pressure in the cargo bay, I think. It's a bit lower than it should be." Jason straightened. "Oh, crap. I bet I hulled the ship with that first shot."
"Wouldn't we have completely decompressed?"
"Not necessarily. The Phoenix has been hulled more than a few times. There may not be a huge hole, just enough for some of the air to leak out. We'll need to patch it, though."
Susan reached for her helmet, but Jason shook his head. "I'll go outside. You monitor things and make sure I don't drift away."
Hoping he didn't, Susan wondered how she would bring the ship around if Jason did actually float into space. She stayed in the control room while he searched the ship for a supply closet with repair foam. Afterward, he prepared to take a space-walk.
One of the birdstyle's more useful features was the way it gripped moving objects. It helped Mark to catch his boomerang, and it helped them stick to the top of the Phoenix when it was racing after a mech. Jason knew that he should be able to do a space-walk without a problem, and he had two cables attaching him to the ship in addition to the protection his suit provided. He felt more than a little uncertain allowing himself to drift out of the airlock, though. One shuttle remained in the bay, dark and lifeless.
He'd chosen the airlock in the midsection of the ship, nearest the cargo area. In his mind he could see where he had fired the first missile, and although he assumed the Spectran shields had taken the brunt of the blow, it was entirely possible that an arrow of shrapnel had penetrated. A supply ship in and of itself was not a very heavy vessel, and the walls weren't as thick as a war ship's. Armor would have added unnecessarily to the already-considerable weight the ship was hauling between worlds, and every pound of ship you had to move required an extra pound of fuel to accelerate it--after a while you were using the majority of your fuel to move other fuel, so it was more cost-effective to lighten the ship, even if you lost a few to battles or stray meteors.
A few feet at a time, Jason played out the cable so that he could examine the surface of the freighter. Halfway along, he found the puncture site. Surrounded by scorch marks, the breech was a gash a little under a foot long and three inches wide. It was well within the capabilities of the repair foam, which should theoretically have been able to plug a hole the size of a rocking chair. Working systematically, Jason applied a layer of foam around the outer edges, and as it expanded, he continued circling around and around until he had filled the entire thing.
Any luck so far? Susan's voice in his mind sounded more than a little worried.
No luck, just my world-famous skill--and here he felt her give a relieved chuckle. I found the hole and repaired it, no problem.
She disengaged. Jason tapped the nozzle of the repair canister against the foam and found it had already hardened. After applying another layer, just to be certain, he moved about looking for a second opening. There was none.
I'm still attached. Making sure everything is secure. How's that gauge reading?
It's nudged back into the blue zone.
That more than his inspection told Jason that he'd finished the job, and he set about reeling himself back into the airlock. Stowing all his equipment with quick precision was second nature after three years of working in space--you always needed to know where equipment was on a space ship--always. As he left for the cockpit, he gave the deadened shuttle a pat.
Back in the cockpit, he glanced at the breathing robot, still happily puffing. "We're still doing good?"
"Ship-shape." Susan gestured to the dial. Jason nearly laughed to see she'd drawn a circle around it with a marker, making it easier to find among the dozens on the control panel. "It's actually up above the blue zone now."
Jason frowned. "That's weird."
"It's just that I've never seen a ship where the cargo hold didn't leech at least a little atmosphere out into space. They're usually not as well insulated as the rest of the ship."
Susan shrugged. "Maybe they wanted these to double as troop transporters?"
Jason folded his arms and rocked back on his heels. They wouldn't transport large numbers of people with this ship. For one thing, there weren't enough plumbing facilities for hundreds of soldiers. They could potentially crowd slaves into the cargo hold for an overnight trip, but hundreds of soldiers would demand more than the three toilets he'd found while hunting for the supply closet. All the same, he probably shouldn't question their good fortune. In space the problem was always too little atmosphere, not too much.
He glanced at Susan. "I have an assignment for you. Head into the cargo hold and take a look around. See if anything is out of the ordinary."
With a nod, she sprinted down the corridor and into one of the stairwells. Jason double-checked the readings on the engines and what he could make of the navigational system, and all seemed to be well.
We've got a bit of a mess down here. Susan's voice in his mind didn't indicate any real problems, and she continued, Apparently there was a fire when the shrapnel hit. The sprinkler system went off, and the water is about knee-deep. He could detect her thoughts wandering as she poked around a bit. He could tell she thought it was too warm and humid in there, with all the water. Actually, it gets deeper near the middle. A couple of the bins of flour have gotten smashed open, but the majority of them seem intact. The shrapnel must have ricocheted around of the metal bins before stopping. There's a bin of improperly rehydrated tomatoes.
They're totally flooded into mush. And...yuck.
Brown glop. I have no idea what this is. Her concentration wavered a bit, and Jason felt her arms strain a little as she opened a lid. It's yeast extract. Nothing harmful. It's all just food.
Jason looked around at the panels. He changed over to his radio because it felt too strange to be standing in place with her in his mind walking around--or wading as the case might be. "Susan, somewhere down there you should be able to find the emergency drains. Is something blocking them?""
"They're under about two feet of thick brown flour-water right now. I couldn't clear them even if I were able to find them. I imagine the pipes are jammed with flour and water too."
Jason thought about what 1500 tons of waterlogged flour would mean for the colony. Susan must have been thinking the same, because she added, "It's not all wet. The higher bins are out of reach."
That was something at least. Jason called her back.
By the time she returned to the cockpit, he had music playing from the speakers: "Under Pressure" by Queen. Susan had remnants of beige slime on the boots of her birdstyle and up her legs to a little higher than her knees. Gesturing toward the speaker with a nod of her head, she said, "How'd you do that?"
"I figured out how to load a Spectran memory chip with MP3s." Jason grinned. "Mark hates it, but there isn't anything Mark can do about it."
They had another few hours until they made port at Ryza, so Jason found a pack of cards in one of the officers' quarters, and he taught Susan a Spectran version of poker. The next song was Joe Jackson's "Breaking Us In Two" and following that was....Anne Murray singing "You Needed Me." Susan shot Jason an incredulous look, and finding stunned horror on his face, she said, "Maybe Mark found something he could do about it after all."
But music was music, so Jason also withstood three songs by Bread before his own music returned; the breathing robot took its regular little green-light breaths, and after every hand they checked the dials.
About an hour later, Jason stood for a while with his arms folded in front of one of the panels. The music was playing another of Mark's treats: "I Love The Flower Girl."
Flour's in her hair, Susan thought, glancing over herself as the music played. Flour's everywhere. Then she noticed the look on Jason's face and how long it was taking him to do a simple scan. "Something's wrong?"
"The engine's running hot. I noticed it was just a little elevated before, but it's really shot up in the last five minutes."
Susan stood beside him and watched the dial as if that would help move it down. "Could it have been damaged?"
"I didn't hit it, but it's too big a coincidence that it would malfunction now." Jason squinted. "Spectran ships usually use the water supply to cool the engines. There are pipes that run the water near the edge of the ship so that space makes it cold, and then they use that to cool the engines. I'm wondering if the flour-water from the store room didn't get into the pipes and clog the cooling system."
He lowered power to the engine, which instead of leaving them coasting on just their momentum, decelerated the ship with bumpy jolts. Susan grabbed one of the command chairs to steady herself. "Should it be that rough?"
"It's not handling right at all. I don't like this." Jason cut power to the engines and bit his lip. "We should still have enough momentum to reach Ryza, but I think we might be spinning a little, and that's decelerating us."
"Maybe we should call for a tow."
"The Space Patrol has its hands full. We'll see what we can do."
Susan sat shuffling the cards while Jason tried to figure out if there were any cockpit controls for the cooling system. Shortly afterward, he left her alone while he went toward the back to explore the pipes.
The music was playing Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" when the ship gave a massive shudder.
He was already on the radio. "What the hell was that?"
Susan was scanning the radar screens. "We're not under attack--we're totally alone."
She could detect how Jason felt this wasn't a good development. Running her gaze over all the dials, she said, "The temperature is a little elevated in the cargo area." The elevated numbers there would be the result of the overheating engines, which were mounted directly over the cargo bay.
Jason had found a massive network of piping in one of the corridors, but unable to make sense of it, he opted not to start opening valves at random. Tapping the pipes, he heard that some of them sounded different from the others.
The ship gave another popping shudder. Susan's heart pounded. "Jason," she called into her bracelet. "Are you all right?"
"I can't find what's jolting the ship. That didn't feel like something striking us from outside--it felt like something decompressed. Some of these pipes are solid, by the way."
"The cargo bay is still fine. It's actually got higher pressure than before."
"Higher? Are you sure you're reading it in the right direction?"
Susan double-checked. "Yes, higher."
"What the hell?"
Susan let Jason know she was shadowing his thoughts again, and she found him heading back into the cargo bay. The doors for the cargo bay slid open only after a lot of effort on his part. It hadn't been that difficult for her an hour ago. She was about to ask if she should come down to help when he got a look inside.
Both stayed silent for a moment. Somewhere between the two of them, the thought arose almost simultaneously so that neither knew which had realized first:
Any free space in the entire cargo bay was filled five feet high with fluffy, gooey, stretchy, rising dough. As Jason stood with the door slid partially open, the dough began sprawling into the hallway. He took a step backward.
Neither spoke for a long minute. Susan could feel Jason's mind calculating, and it fascinated her in an academic way how quickly he ran through a risk analysis of all the problems this dough might cause as well as how long it might continue forming, possible resolutions, and any way to minimize the damage.
Jason decided the best thing to do would be to seal off the cargo hold and let the dough keep expanding. It would stop at the cargo hold walls.
Susan sent, Have you ever made bread dough? When she felt Jason frown (he'd limited his culinary adventures to cookie dough) she added, It doesn't just expand to fill its container. It'll blow the lid off a tuperware. The action of the yeast produces gases, and that increases the pressure.
This explained the high levels of atmospheric pressure. Jason glanced around. He said into his radio, "Can we turn off life support to the cargo hold entirely? Do yeast function without oxygen?"
"I'm not sure about either. They might be anoxic."
The ship gave another popping jolt. Jason swept his gaze around the cargo hold. "I didn't see what made that shudder."
"It's not something in the hold?" A pause. "All the other readings are--hmm. I don't know, Jason. I wish I could read this stuff. Here, look at this for me." Susan sent him the image she was looking at, a dial flat out to right. Jason tried sounding out the characters, but this went beyond his Spectran language skills. He asked her what was nearby, but that didn't clue them in.
While they were trying to decipher the control panel, two things happened. The first was another shock throughout the ship, which immediately transformed that one dial from tilted all the way to the right to tilted all the way to the left. In the next moment, one of the cargo bay's bottom storage bins gave a tremendous groan as it split along its seams, top to bottom. Jason dashed out of the cargo hold as dough bulged out the split seam just for a moment before all the bins balanced above it toppled forward and crashed to the squishy goo on the cargo bay floor.
The ship had developed a slight spin in space. Jason asked Susan to give minimal power to the engines in order to stabilize them, then did his best to seal shut the cargo bay doors. It left a small pile of dough in the corridor. Once that was done, he ran to the cockpit.
"We're going to jettison the cargo."
Susan glanced at him, ashen-faced, but she moved toward the computer and tried to negotiate the computer screens to access the cargo bay controls. Jason edged her aside and worked at it a little more quickly. She didn't say anything about what the loss of the cargo would mean to the colony. She didn't have to. After a few minutes, Jason said, "The cargo bay doors are jammed."
"The dough got into them?"
Jason slammed the his palm into the control panel. He took a deep breath. "I'm going to go back outside the ship and punch a few holes into the hull. It'll relieve the interior pressure on the hull, at least, and that allow get us enough time to get back to the colony."
He sprinted to the airlock with the dead shuttle and meticulously (but quickly) re-hitched the space walk cables. With his gun set to the drill attachment, he played out cables until he reached the spot he had patched before. All this trouble because of one piece of shrapnel. He punched four small holes in the sheet metal, avoiding the seams so those didn't have an excuse to split all the way down. Then he returned to the cargo bay. It didn't reassure him that the ship had developed a more pronounced spin as he maneuvered back along the hull, but he knew that meant some of the pressure was escaping. Unfortunately, the ship gave another convulsive shudder just as he reached the airlock.
Once he had his helmet off, Jason radioed Susan. "How's it going?"
"I'm going to have to turn off the engines entirely. They're hotter than blazes. We're drifting a bit to the side since you released some of the air in the cargo bay, but not significantly. And two more of the dials have pulled their left-to-right trick."
While she was giving her report, Jason had been coiling the cables and stowing his gun in his belt. The ship quivered again. "Three dials," Susan added.
It didn't make any sense. What was going on?
Jason took a detour through the lower decks of the ship. Here he was on nothing better than a catwalk, but as he traveled the length of the ship, using a flashlight, he found thick globs of dough covering the outsides of several pipes. It didn't appear to be leaking from the ceiling.
The emergency drainage system. The flour-and-yeast water had washed down the pipes, thickened into an immovable paste, and then begun to expand. Jason had a quick thrill (he'd figured out the source of the popping and shuddering) and a simultaneous nausea. Pipes filled with dough not only seemed prone to rupturing--they also prevented the actual water from flowing where it needed to go. Stagnant water in space turned into ice. Pipes filled with ice (as Jason had discovered during one cold night at the trailer) also tended to burst. The cooling system wasn't circulating any water to cool the engines. The sewage containers were probably enclosed in the very center of the ship, since the material in there wouldn't necessarily be circulating, but with dough in the sewage tanks, would they hold either?
The ceiling seemed to be convex here, dipping a little closer toward the catwalk. Jason opted not to continue on the inspection and instead returned to the main deck. The walls of the main corridor seemed less straight than before, bulging in the centers.
As he stepped into the cockpit, Susan turned to meet his eyes with a fairly obvious fear on her face. The ship gave a long slow moan.
"Maybe I should try to blow the cargo bay doors from the outside," Jason said.
Susan swallowed hard. She didn't negate him, but instead of heading back to the airlock, Jason took another look at the dials. His eye caught the breathing robot, which gasped and wheezed to get each green-light breath. Each succeeding motion of the blue sail came a little more slowly.
"The air doesn't smell right," Susan said, following Jason's gaze. "It's getting less musty."
Jason rubbed at his chin. "If we blow the cargo bay doors, we can't shut them again. I'm not willing to gamble that the cargo hold is airtight against the rest of the ship. We really will decompress." He leaned against the instrument panel and lowered his head, closed his eyes. "And the ship is in a full spin now," he added. "We've got no hope of navigating it back into the correct solar system, let alone to the colony."
In that interminable moment, Jason looked out the screen at black space for inspiration, and he found none. The metal around them gave another groan, and the ship shuddered.
Jason swallowed hard as he closed his eyes and tried to get a mental picture of the ship. The metal panels of the hull must be bulging out, gaping at the seams so that the air from their life support was shooting out as freely as from a basket. Meanwhile the heat from the uncooled engines was further activating the yeast, which reacted with one thousand five hundred tons of wet flour to expand ad infinitum. Looking down, he realized he was gripping one of the command chairs hard enough to hurt his hands. He forced his grip to relax, slowly uncurling each finger. After a deep breath, he looked at Susan. "Gather anything you want to take offship. We're going to abandon."
They pulled a few of the hard drives out of the computers under the command consoles. Susan rescued the asthmatic breathing robot. While they were walking the corridors to the airlock with the silent shuttle, the power cut off entirely. Jason had to manually open the airlock doors while Susan brought the shuttle to life. The engines roared up, and he climbed aboard. The shuttle and the freighter parted company, and Jason guided the shuttle a short distance from the ship before opening the throttle and piloting it a safe distance away.
The freighter had developed a pronounced spin, yawing over onto one side, then onto the other as the metal seams parted from their neighbors. In space there was no way to hear the squeals of twisting metal or the gunshot sounds of popping bolts, but both Susan and Jason could imagine the ship in a symphony of mechanical death throes. The rear cargo area bulged like a pregnant belly. Geysers of ice shot out from the top where pipes had burst, spraying liquid water a short distance before absolute zero temperatures rendered them into tiny ice bullets.
Jason stopped the shuttle and turned it so they were watching through the front windows.
With a final shudder, the Spectran freighter split into pieces, the dough bulging out and spreading quickly into unpressurized space. Before their eyes, one thousand five hundred tons of flour-turned-dough expanded rapidly once the pressure was off, rolling outward and upward in every direction, completely engulfing the wreck of the ship and continuing beyond for several minutes like a creamy explosion in slow motion. As the ship continued spinning in the center of the doughy burst, the substance swirled outward like the spiral arms of a galaxy and flattened like a hand-tossed pizza crust. Then, as the gasses continued dispersing into space, the dough deflated back on itself, collapsing into a long swirling ribbon rippling in the aftershocks of the departing gas. Within five minutes, all that remained were miles and miles of a fine gooey film that crackled into snowflake-like particles.
A similar silence dominated the cockpit of the shuttle where Jason and Susan remained in safety. It was a long, long moment, each almost daring the other to break the silence first.
At last Jason said, "Well, you don't see that every day."
Susan look at her hands, at the little robot that once again took hearty breaths and blinked a pleased green light at its owners. She was biting her lower lip, her cheeks tight. "I was just thinking--" and she tried to keep her voice normal, "--with all those mushed up tomatoes....it's too bad there wasn't any cheese."
Jason looked at her inscrutably, and she started giggling, then gave in completely and laughed into her hands. In the pilot's seat, Jason started laughing too.
After a few minutes, Jason cleared his throat. He grinned. "See if you can't set us a heading to Ryza." Then, with his eyes glinting, he looked straight at Susan and said, "You know, as the junior officer, you get to write the report."
He pivoted the ship and directed them back toward the colony and away from the remnants of the Universe's Largest Lasagna Noodle.